Virginia Tech prepares for energy emergency with Lights Off/Power Down

Published: Jun. 23, 2016 at 7:51 PM EDT
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Lights out and machines powered down at Virginia Tech Thursday, but not because of storms. It was a training exercise.

It was all part of Virginia Tech's annual practice of Lights Off/Power Down where the school determines how much energy they could cut in a one hour time frame.

Thursday, the campus went from using 27 kilowatts of energy down to 21 in just sixty minutes.

It may have looked like employees were stuck working without power at Virginia Tech, but they turned the lights out on themselves.

University Spokesperson Mark Owczarski explained, "We ask our employees and ask students to take the time to look around their office, maybe work with their lights off for an hour, turn off the coffee pot, turn off the printers, turn off lights in the men's and women's room is no one's in there, as a concerted, thoughtful effort to say, 'We need to use less power for an hour.'"

The University also had utility members go around to turn off air conditioners and anything else to cut down on power between 2:00 and 3:00 pm.

The school said, as a large user of energy in the New River Valley, they'll be one of the first institutions asked to cut back in case of a power emergency.

So for the past five years, they ran this test to see what could be shut off to lower their energy quickly.

"It's to our advantage if we can turn down the power to preserve the broader grid for everybody so that it might be hours of discomfort versus days of discomfort," Owczarski said.

The Town of Blacksburg appreciates this move saying in a statement, "Virginia Tech's Light Out/Power Down initiative is a great example of how large energy users can be part of improving the electricity grid's resilience during times of unusual peak demand - which can happen when we are hit with an extreme heat wave or cold spell."

And it's not a futile practice. This training has come in handy already for the school.

"There has been an occasion, a couple years ago, where a very, very hot August came and we were asked to lower the grid for a period of time," Owczarski said. "Because of this kind of practice, we were able to know exactly how to do it, how to communicate with our community, and in that occasion we were successful and were able to help a broader problem."

The Town said, ""Energy conservation is the definition of a win-win-win. It reduces environmental pollution. It saves money. And during times of peak demand, it provides stability to the larger electrical grid."

In return for the practice, the school gets a rebate of a couple hundred thousand dollars off their power bill every year.

In June 2015, during the same event, Virginia Tech reduced its energy consumption by 7,000 kilowatts and received a $230,000 phased-in payment for its participation. This year, the university hoped to reduce its energy consumption by 7,000 kilowatts again, and will receive a $145,000 payment for successfully participating.

This initiative is part of Virginia Tech’s larger commitment to reaching a 50 percent recycling rate by 2020, improving energy efficiency where and whenever possible in campus buildings, to achieving a minimum LEED rating of silver for all new construction, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. These goals are outlined in the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment, which was approved by the Board of Visitors in 2009 and reaffirmed in 2013.